Funding cutbacks struck all local arts institutions THE YEAR IN REVIEW John Dorsey

December 29, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Unquestionably, the most important single development of the year on the local art scene was -- unfortunately -- the recession. It had been gaining on Baltimore before 1991, but this was the year it hit hard, with cutbacks in funds from public and private sources having major effects:

* The Baltimore Museum of Art, its city funds cut more than 7 percent, will close for two weeks beginning Jan. 20, lay off six people and reduce its days open from six to five and its weekly hours from 41 to 32.

* Less hard hit, the Walters Art Gallery is freezing salaries, eliminating overtime for workers paid by the hour, leaving staff vacancies unfilled, and will scale back on exhibition installations.

* The Baltimore City Life Museums eliminated three positions.

* The Maryland Historical Society this year did not get a state grant that in the past amounted to about $125,000. So far this has caused no layoffs or program cutbacks, but vacant positions are not being filled.

* This was also the year the city lost two of its major commerical gallery spaces. In March, the Dalsheimer gallery, which had shown both local and national artists, closed. And at the end of the summer Constantine Grimaldis, generally considered the leading Baltimore dealer, ceased operations at his North Charles Street space, although he remains in business at the larger Morton Street space.

Among other retrenchments, Maryland Art Place will rent part of the space now used for exhibitions in its Saratoga Street building, and will probably scale back from six to four exhibitions a year. There was no cut in city funds to School 33 this year, but one is expected next year and the art center is seeking additional private funding. Times are bad all over, and city- and state-supported organizations that have already been cut can anticipate even more drastic cuts in fiscal 1993.

But the year did have its bright spots, and the brightest of all

was the opening of Hackerman House. The Walters restored one of the great town houses of the 19th century as the home of its Asian art collection, primarily including Chinese porcelains of the 16th to 19th centuries and Japanese 19th century objects. They are given distinguished architectural settings in Hackerman House's great main floor rooms.

If we lost two galleries, we gained Galerie Francoise et Ses Freres at Green Spring Station, where since April Mary Jo Gordon has been presenting imaginative exhibits primarily of works by local artists.

Moreover, even in bad times Rebecca Hoffberger has so far raised $3.4 million (including a second million-dollar challenge grant from the Zanvyl Krieger Fund) toward her American Visionary Art Museum. She also has a site near the Inner Harbor and an architectural design for what she plans to make into a national museum of outsider art.

And Baltimore art educator and curator Steven X. Lee is looking for a building and funding for his dream, a museum to showcase minority art and culture.

Among the year's exhibition highlights, three local museum shows stand out. In alphabetical order: "Images of Penance, Images of Mercy," introduced an eastern audience to the powerful santos (holy images) of the American southwest; "Mike and Doug Starn" brought the work of twins who are revolutionizing our idea of what photography can be; and "Monet" brought 32 paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reflecting most of the careeer of this much-loved quintessential impressionist.

There were other worthy shows, too, including "Gold of Africa" at the BMA and "Gold of Greece" at the Walters, "Contemporary Photography in the U.S.S.R" presented by the Museum for Contemporary Arts, and Jacob Lawrence's series of paintings on Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass at the BMA.

(That museum also gets the bomb of the year award for the monotonous, boring "That's All Folks: Bugs Bunny and Friends Present the Art of Animation.")

Local gallery highlights included Grimaldis' inspired combination of sculptors John Van Alstine and John Ruppert and the University of Maryland at College Park art gallery's first-ever history of "Photomontage in America."

Among highlights elsewhere were the Smithsonian's "Degenerate Art," a show of works the Nazis condemned; the National Gallery's "Circa 1492"; shows on Winslow Homer at Washington's Corcoran Gallery and the National Museum of American Art; and the Philadelphia Museum's "Henry Ossawa Tanner" retrospective.

The best of '91 . . .

* "Images of Penance, Images of Mercy." Nineteenth and early 20th century santos -- holy images -- from the American southwest, dramatically compelling and dramatically presented. Walters Art Gallery.

* "Mike and Doug Starn." The twins' radical, acclaimed photography is changing our idea of what a photograph is, but it also evokes deep emotional responses. Baltimore Museum of Art.

* "Monet." Thirty-two paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston trace most of the career of the great impressionist, including examples of his famous series paintings of haystacks, cathedrals, mornings on the Seine and water lilies. Baltimore Museum of Art.

. . . and the worst

* "That's All Folks!: Bugs Bunny and Friends Present the Art of Animation." Aside from being totally inappropriate for a serious art museum, this show only proved that what have been called "the most inventive animated shorts ever made" are formulaic, monotonous and boring.

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